The death of NRATV: A timeline of the fight between NRA and its advertising agency

NRATV added KKK hoods to beloved children's TV characters. It sparked the end of the network itself. 

Turmoil within the National Rifle Association was on full display during its 2019 annual meeting, when President Oliver North was forced out of his position amid reports of infighting and budget deficits and accusations of financial improprieties. The extremist pro-gun organization has been in chaos for months, and the infighting spilled into public view in March following the publication of a report on the exorbitant amount of money the NRA spends on a media operation, NRATV, that aired a particularly odious segment leaving several board members and NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre “livid and embarrassed.” In June, the NRA suspended its second-in-command Chris Cox following an alleged coup attempt against LaPierre. Now the NRA and ad firm Ackerman McQueen, which produced NRATV, are suing each other for tens of millions of dollars while trading salacious allegations of financial misdeeds, which caused the collapse of the network itself. 

Members of NRA leadership were “livid and embarrassed” after NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch shared an image of Klan hoods on children’s show characters on her NRATV show

September 7, 2018: Loesch showed Thomas & Friends characters with KKK hoods on during her NRATV show. NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch tried to criticize diversity by showing an image of characters from the children's series Thomas & Friends wearing KKK hoods. Loesch shared the image to mock the show's addition of a female train from Africa, saying, “Clearly, this is overdue, right?” From the September 7 edition of NRATV’s Relentless:  

DANA LOESCH (HOST): Thomas the Tank is now bringing gender balance to the show by adding girl trains. Seriously. One of those trains, Nia, will be from Kenya to add ethnic diversity to the show. And -- which that, by the way, that’s where it gets really strange to me because I’ve looked at Thomas and Friends, at their pictures, and I see gray and blue. Am I to understand this entire time that Thomas and his trains were white? Because they all have gray faces. How do you bring ethnic diversity? I mean, they had to paint, what I guess they thought was some sort of African pattern on the side of Nia’s engine? How do you bring ethnic diversity to a show that literally has no ethnicities because they're trains. They don't even have skin pigmentation. Where -- was there some concern that the show had racist undertones? Because, Sir Topham Hatt clearly is white, but the trains? I mean, I’m looking at this picture and I’m really, really struggling to understand how in the world there isn’t any diversity in any of this. Oh, was it because, I see it. It was the white hoods. And the burning train tracks. OK, fine, fair point. Fair. I get it. Thomas the Tank Engine has been a blight on race relations for far too long. Clearly this is overdue. Right? [NRATV, Relentless, 9/7/18]

March 11, 2019: The New York Times reported that several board members “questioned the value” of NRATV following Loesch’s segment. After the segment aired, several board members “expressed concerns about NRATV … amid what was described as an internal review” of the media outlet’s future. NRA board member and past NRA President Marion Hammer went on the record to The New York Times saying that she and several other members “have questioned the value” of NRATV since it was founded, which the Times wrote underscores “a debate within the N.R.A. over how broad its activism should be.” Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre was reportedly “livid and embarrassed” after Loesch’s segment and “apologized to the entire” board. [The New York Times, 3/11/19]   

Amid a financial crisis, the NRA sues its own ad agency

April 12, 2019: The NRA files a lawsuit against its ad agency and producer of NRATV, Ackerman McQueen. On April 12, the NRA sued Ackerman McQueen, its ad agency for nearly 40 years which also produces NRATV. The complaint alleged that Ackerman McQueen “was obliged to provide access to records underlying its bills” but that as of halfway through 2018, some such requests from the NRA had been “rebuffed or baldly ignored.” The lawsuit also zeroed in on then-NRA President Oliver North, who has a contract with Ackerman McQueen to host the NRATV show Oliver North’s American Heroes. Overall, the lawsuit indicated that the NRA paid Ackerman McQueen $42.6 million in 2017. The NRA said it is required to disclose and approve its top officials’ pay, but that neither North nor Ackerman McQueen would share all the details of their contract. The lawsuit highlighted a split between board members who reportedly think the outside law firm representing the NRA in this suit and other litigation is charging too much and those who think the money is well spent as it is crucial to the gun group’s survival. [Media Matters, 4/15/19, The Wall Street Journal, 4/15/19]   

April 17, 2019: The Trace details a “desperate” financial situation and fractured board of directors. A Trace article written in partnership with The New Yorker exposed more than a decade of financial problems at the NRA, including that the group “has run annual deficits of as much as forty million dollars” and currently spends less than 10% of its budget on firearms education, safety, or training. Tax documents featured in the article show “a small group of N.R.A. executives, contractors, and venders” received “hundreds of millions of dollars from the nonprofit’s budget, through gratuitous payments, sweetheart deals, and opaque financial arrangements.” One senior NRA employee went as far as to “describe a workplace distinguished by secrecy, self-dealing, and greed.” Meanwhile, the NRA, “in desperate need of funds, raised its dues for the second time in two years” and cut costs by eliminating “free coffee and water coolers at its headquarters” and freezing employees’ pension plans. [Media Matters, 4/18/19]    

April 21, 2019: NRA board member Marion Hammer plans to attend her first meeting in years due to infighting. The Trace quoted a gun rights blog to report that “legendary NRA lobbyist and past president Marion Hammer, ‘who hasn’t attended a Board of Directors meeting since hell froze over,’” will attend the upcoming meeting because “it’s that bad.” [The Trace, 4/22/19]    

2019 NRA annual meeting devolves into infighting as North is ousted

April 24, 2019: NRA updates its civil lawsuit complaint against Ackerman McQueen, saying North “double-dipped by drawing a salary” from the group and the ad agency. On April 24, just two days before the annual meeting kicked off, the NRA updated its initial complaint against Ackerman McQueen to accuse its own president of “douple-dipp[ing] by drawing a salary from both the gun rights group and Ackerman McQueen at the same time.” The updated complaint also criticizes North’s documentary series with NRATV, claiming he didn’t deliver as many episodes as promised and that his series didn’t bring in the “hoped-for sponsorship cash.” [The Daily Beast, 4/26/19]    

April 26, 2019: Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre accuses North of trying to extort him. LaPierre sent a letter to the board of directors late in the afternoon during the first day of the NRA annual meeting accusing North of extorting him and pressuring him into resigning. He said North and Ackerman McQueen were threatening to send a letter to the board that “would contain a devastating account of our financial status, sexual harassment charges against a staff member, accusations of wardrobe expenses and excessive staff travel expenses” unless he resigned and withdrew the lawsuit. [The Wall Street Journal, 4/26/19]

April 27, 2019: North is forced out on the third day of the annual meeting. On April 27, then-NRA First Vice President Richard Childress read a letter from North, announcing he did not have the support to serve a second term as president and declaring “there is a clear crisis” within NRA leadership that “needs to be dealt with immediately and responsibly.” Childress appears to have subsequently lost his vice president position, though he remains a member of the NRA board. [The Washington Post, 4/27/19, Twitter, 4/29/19]  

April 27, 2019: NRA suspends its top lawyer. Following North’s departure, Steve Hart, a longtime lawyer for the NRA board of directors, was reportedly suspended. Neither Hart nor NRA’s outside law firm would comment on his suspension. [The Daily Beast, 4/27/19]    

April 27, 2019: New York attorney general opens an investigation into NRA’s tax-exempt status.The New York attorney general’s office launched an investigation into the NRA’s tax-exempt status and has issued subpoenas, according to its spokesperson. The organization has reportedly received a document preservation notice and its outside lawyer has said the group will “fully cooperate with any inquiry into its finances.” [NPR, 4/27/19]   

April 29, 2019: NRA elected its newest president, who is on the board of an organization that maintains the largest Confederate monument in America. On March 29, the NRA board of directors elected Carolyn Meadows to succeed North as president of the NRA. Meadows, who sits on the NRA board of directors and was serving as the group’s second vice president, is also listed by the Stone Mountain Memorial Association as chairperson of its board of directors. The association maintains the largest memorial to the Confederacy in the U.S. -- a carving of Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis on horseback that is “42 feet deep and 400 feet above ground into a granite mountain.” [Media Matters, 4/29/19]

NRA turmoil continues and intensifies

May 2, 2019: Questions arise about LaPierre’s travel expenses. According to The Wall Street Journal, LaPierre charged Ackerman McQueen over $240,000 for trips to Italy, Hungary, and the Bahamas without providing “adequate documentation.” The Journal reported that the expenses included a stay at the Four Seasons hotel in Budapest and other trips to Palm Beach, Fla., and Reno, Nev. Ackerman McQueen was eventually reimbursed by the NRA. [The Wall Street Journal, 5/2/19]   

May 6, 2019: Meadows claimed Rep. Lucy McBath won her House race because she is a “minority female.” After Rep. Lucy McBath (D-GA) won her House race campaigning on a gun law reform platform, Meadows said her “anti-gun stance … didn’t have anything to do with” McBath’s victory. Instead, Meadows said “it had to do with being a minority female.” The new NRA president later apologized, calling her comments “insensitive and inappropriate.” Meadows comment came just days after Media Matters highlighted Meadows' role in blocking the construction of a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 2015 as part of her work with the Stone Mountain Memorial Association. [Media Matters, 5/6/19Media Matters, 5/2/19]

May 15, 2019: Leaked documents show “lavish” spending for LaPierre despite poor conditions for NRA staff. NPR reported that leaked documents show LaPierre spent six figures on clothing and travel despite reportedly “low wages, pension problems and a culture of fear within the” NRA. The documents show the NRA’s pension obligations were about $134 million at the start of this year, but the organization had set aside only $93 million. A former NRA employee said the staff were “horribly underpaid” and struggled to make ends meet. According to The Wall Street Journal, the leaked documents also show LaPierre directed Ackerman McQueen to rent an apartment for an NRA summer intern at a cost of $13,800. [NPR, 5/15/2019The Wall Street Journal, 5/11/19]

May 22, 2019: NRA files a second lawsuit against Ackerman McQueen where it asks for $40 million in damages. While the NRA's first lawsuit against Ackerman McQueen asked the ad firm to take several actions, it did not ask for monetary damages. A second lawsuit brought by the NRA against Ackerman McQueen on May 22 argued for substantial monetary damages. As The Daily Beast reported, “The complaint, filed late Wednesday afternoon in Virginia Circuit Court against advertising firm Ackerman McQueen, alleges that the firm shared sensitive information with outsiders in an effort 'to tarnish and ultimately destroy the public image of the NRA and its senior leadership.'” [The Daily Beast, 5/22/19]

May 23, 2019: Ackerman McQueen files countersuit against NRA asking for up to $100 million in damages. The NRA’s ad firm filed a counterclaim to the NRA's initial lawsuit asking for up to $100 million in damages from the NRA, alleging that it already gave the gun organization access to financial information including analytics for NRATV. The counterclaim also blames the NRA for, as The Daily Beast put it, “a coup against” former president Oliver North. The suit alleges the NRA’s outside counsel “provided misleading information to the New York Times” about North’s work for Ackerman McQueen. It goes on to claim the NRA took its legal actions against the ad firm in an attempt to terminate their contract without paying severance or cancellation fees while also damaging the firm’s reputation. [The Daily Beast, 5/23/19Rolling Stone, 5/24/19]

May 29, 2019: Ackerman McQueen submits a notice to terminate its contract with the NRA, leaving NRATV’s future in question. Ackerman McQueen moved to end its four-decade-long partnership with the NRA and formally submitted a notice to terminate the contract. Ackerman McQueen claimed the contract has already been “constructively terminated” by the NRA’s “inexplicable actions.” An NRA spokesperson responded that the organization “can now begin transitioning various communication functions” and refocus on issues related to firearms. This announcement reportedly caught NRATV staff off guard; according to The Daily Beast, many are wondering “if they even have jobs anymore.” NRATV staff received a two-sentence email from Ackerman McQueen’s CEO informing them that they “will have future internal discussions as we are able.” [The Wall Street Journal, 5/29/19; The Daily Beast, 5/29/19]

June 2, 2019: The NRA admits “the concept” of NRATV “remains under review.” In a statement released to The Oklahoman by its law firm, the NRA said that NRATV live streaming will continue “for the immediate time being, but the concept remains under review as we determine whether it provides value to the NRA and its membership.” The statement went on to say the NRA’s aim is to focus its message on “defending the Second Amendment and America’s constitutional freedoms.” [The Oklahoman, 6/2/19]

June 3, 2019: Ackerman McQueen claims the NRA is preventing them from cooperating with Senate Finance Committee subpoena. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) put out a statement saying that Ackerman McQueen is “willing to cooperate with investigations if the NRA will permit it to do so.” The three senators previously “asked current and former National Rifle Association executives and the organization’s public relations firm to turn over letters, third-party audits, memos and other materials as they look into allegations of self-dealing and examine the NRA’s nonprofit status,” as The Washington Post reported in early May. The statement went on to allege the NRA is refusing to cooperate and instead “attempting to thwart the cooperation of other organizations,” which the senators called “outrageous and unacceptable.” [Twitter, 6/3/19, The Washington Post, 5/2/19]

June 6: The NRA subpoenaed North and two other board members. The National Rifle Association subpoenaed current board members Oliver North, Lance Olson, and Daniel Boren. The subpoenas are asking for “a number of documents from North: anything sent from April 10 to May 22 regarding people who work for” Ackerman McQueen; “any communications sent over the NRA’s contentious Indianapolis convention about CEO Wayne LaPierre or Ackerman McQueen; documents about the NRA’s expenditures; documents about North’s expenses; and communications about leaks.” North is also set to be deposed on June 13 and Olson on June 17. [The Daily Beast, 6/6/19]  

June 7: NRATV host appeared to take a shot at NRA leadership. During NRATV’s hourly update, host Grant Stinchfield offered up what appeared to be a warning to the LaPierre faction of NRA leadership, saying, “If you think I’m too blunt, our words are too strong, quit your whining, get serious about this fight or move over and let someone else fight for you.” He went on to insist he’s never said anything extreme and that the network covers more topics than just firearms because “all the issues we face today, from immigration to spending to the battle over our guns to the war on terror and free speech, they are all connected.” [Media Matters, 6/7/19]

June 9: Post reports that former NRA president and board member received millions from the pro-gun group. The Washington Post reported that in 2017, the NRA “bought nearly $3.1 million in ammunition and other supplies” from Crow Shooting Supply, run by former board member and president Peter Brownell. Both Brownell and the NRA insist they began purchasing from Crow before Brownell took over the company in 2011. However, it was in 2017 that the NRA disclosed the contract in its tax filings for the first time. According to the Post, “In all, 18 members of the NRA’s 76-member board, who are not paid as directors, collected money from the group during the past three years.” [The Washington Post, 6/9/19]    

June 10: Daily Beast reports that NRA told North to pick a side. The Daily Beast reported that NRA’s audit committee, comprising several board members, reportedly sent a letter to the entire board on May 31 stating that North’s board membership and contract with Ackerman McQueen “presents him with an irreconcilable conflict of interest.” The letter also stated “that the committee rescinded its approval of North’s work with the advertising firm that runs NRATV.” Currently, North is still listed as a host on NRATV’s website. [The Daily Beat, 6/10/19; NRATV, 6/11/19]

June 19: Ackerman McQueen warns NRATV could be shut down within days. According to Bloomberg, Ackerman McQueen claimed in a June 19 court filing that the NRA owes the ad agency nearly $1.7 million for promotional work. The claim warned that unless the NRA posts a $3 million letter of credit, Ackerman McQueen will be forced to fire or put 40 percent of its staff on leave because of the “immediate irreparable harm” it would suffer. Since about half of Ackerman McQueen’s staff work on NRA-related projects, such a move would effectively shut down NRATV. [Bloomberg, 6/19/19]

June 20: NRA suspends its second-in-command after an alleged failed coup attempt against its chief executive. In a lawsuit filed on June 19, the NRA alleged that text messages and emails show top lobbyist Chris Cox and another board member discussing their efforts to oust NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre. An NRA spokesperson confirmed that Cox has “been placed on administrative leave” though Cox called the accusations “offensive and patently false.” [The New York Times, 6/20/19]

June 25: NRA pulls the plug on NRATV. The NRA shut down its broadcast platform on Tuesday night. LaPierre wrote to the members, “After careful consideration, I am announcing that starting today, we are undergoing a significant change in our communications strategy. We are no longer airing ‘live TV’ programming.” The NRA executive vice president said the move came after several members expressed concern the organization was moving away from gun rights advocacy. Ackerman McQueen put out its own statement pledging to continuing fighting “against the N.R.A.’s repeated violations … with every legal remedy available to us.” [The New York Times, 6/25/19]

This piece was originally published April 30 and is being updated with additional information as the story develops.